Day 1086: Lady Cop Makes Trouble

Cover for Lady Cop Makes TroubleLady Cop Makes Trouble is the second book in Amy Stewart’s Kopp sisters series, set in pre-World War I New Jersey. Although entertaining, it did not really live up to the energy of the first novel.

Constance Kopp is in limbo in her career with the sheriff’s department in Paterson. Sheriff Heath has wanted to hire her as a deputy ever since the state of New Jersey made it legal to hire women as police. But the sheriff’s office is different, lawyers advise, and until he can hire her as a deputy, he has her working as a matron in the jail.

When a German-speaking inmate claims he needs medical attention, he refuses to describe his symptoms in English. Constance speaks German, so Sheriff Heath has her accompany the deputy and the prisoner to the hospital. When the hospital experiences a blackout, Constance sends the deputy away, claiming she can guard the prisoner, Baron Matthesius, herself. But the Baron escapes.

A law makes the sheriff responsible for escapes, so Sheriff Heath could be imprisoned for Constance’s mistake. Constance is determined to recapture the prisoner.

I didn’t find the plot of this novel as interesting as the last, nor were the characters as vibrant. Like the first novel, this one is based on newspaper clippings from the time. Constance Kopp really existed and had some interesting adventures.

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Day 954: Americanah

Cover for AmericanahIfemelu has decided to return to Nigeria after living in the United States for 13 years. She has just finished a fellowship at Princeton and broken up with her American boyfriend, Blaine. In preparation for leaving, she also winds down her popular blog about race in America. While she is getting her hair braided, she thinks about her journey to this point.

Ifemelu grows up in a Nigeria where, for the young, the only hope seems to be to leave the country. Her father has been out of work for years because he was too proud to call his boss “Mam.” A few fat cats, like the general supporting Ifemelu’s Aunty Uju, are unbelievably rich, but there is no opportunity ahead of them for the young middle class. Most of them dream about leaving the country.

In high school Ifemelu falls in love with Obinze, who dreams of going to the States. The two enroll in a college in Nigeria where Obinze’s mother is a professor. But the dorm’s lavatories aren’t working and the professors haven’t been paid in months. Eventually, they go on strike, and Ifemelu must return home to Lagos. When she hears Ifemelu is at loose ends, Aunty Uju, who is now living in New Jersey, suggests that Ifemelu move there to go to school and help her care for her son.

In New Jersey Ifemelu begins struggling to find work, for her scholarship only pays 75% of her expenses. It is in this time period that she does something that separates her from Obinze. She stops taking his calls or responding to him.

Obinze has his own problems. His lack of opportunity in Nigeria eventually brings him to England as an illegal immigrant. There he struggles along with menial jobs, giving kick-backs to work under other men’s names. He is about to marry a woman for citizenship when he is deported.

Much of the novel is about the difficult immigrant experiences of the two main characters (although we spend much more time with Ifemelu) and Ifemelu’s experiences of race problems in the United States. Ifemelu’s observations on her blog provide an interesting, sort of third-party, perspective. With all of the recent police shootings of unarmed black men that have happened lately, this is a  topic that is on everyone’s minds.

I went back and forth on how much I liked this novel. In Ifemelu, Adiche creates a good, strong voice and a believable, likable character. I was not so enamored of the love affair at the center of the novel. The coming of age section at the beginning of the book I found trite and a little tedious, but that is only about 60 pages long. However, the moral decisions at the end are more troubling, or in fact, that there is absolutely no thought about them, that’s what troubles me. I found very interesting, though, Ifemelu’s reaction to the changed Nigeria when she comes home.

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Day 891: Girl Waits with Gun

Cover to Girl Waits with GunConstance, Norma, and Fleurette Kopp are driving their carriage into Paterson, New Jersey, one day when they are broadsided by an automobile driven by a wealthy man accompanied by a bunch of thugs. The men try to drive away but are stopped by the townspeople. The man turns out to be Henry Kaufman of Kaufman Silk Dying Company.

When Constance tries to collect $50 from him for repairs to their buggy, she and her family find themselves the victims of harassment. They receive threatening letters, bricks are thrown through the windows of their farmhouse at night, and men invade their property. Constance’s trip to the police gets no help from the prosecutor’s office, but Sheriff Heath teaches Constance and Norma how to shoot and sends deputies out to patrol the house.

The threats don’t stop, though. Instead, the attacks escalate and the women receive kidnapping threats against Fleurette, who is only 16.

In the meantime, Constance has met Lucy, a young dyer, who says she had a child by Kaufman. She said she sent the baby away with other children during a recent strike, and he is the only one who didn’t come back. She is sure Kaufman kidnapped him.

This novel is fun, exciting, and well written, with interesting characters, placed during a period when there was a lot of labor unrest in the Northeast. Constance is an engaging heroine. Although the plot involving Lucy is made up, the rest is based on a true case of the time, taken from newspaper articles from 1914. This novel makes truly enjoyable reading.

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Day 845: The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

Cover for The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar WaoEven after thinking about the novel for some time, I can’t decide whether I liked The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. On the one hand, there’s the energy with which it is written and its inventiveness, wedging a portion of the narrative into footnotes that convey some of the most interesting information (a technique used also in The Sunken Cathedral and by such writers as David Foster Wallace). On the other hand, there’s the unrelenting sexism and objectification of women expressed by the principal narrator as well as by other characters. Okay, that’s an important part of the character’s personality rather than an attitude of the author, but I found it disturbing.

Oscar is a misfit. He is a fat, nerdy boy from the Dominican Republic, highly intelligent and well read but unable to interact normally with people, especially girls. He is interested in Star Trek and Tolkien, but even his other geeky friends eventually get girlfriends while he remains alone and still preoccupied with his obsessions. He dreams of being a science fiction writer.

In college at Rutgers he has one reluctant friend. Because Yunior (Díaz’s persona for much of his fiction) is in love with Oscar’s sister Lola, he agrees to be Oscar’s roommate. He tries to get Oscar to exercise and invites him out with friends. But his efforts aren’t sincere, or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that his intentions are mixed, so he eventually gives up on trying to make Oscar more normal.

Of course, Yunior’s perceptions are all colored by his own preoccupation, sex. Although he loves Lola, they break up several times because of his unfaithfulness. Yunior sees Oscar as a young man wanting to get laid. Well, of course he does, but what he really wants is love.

Oscar has grown up with the romance of his sci-fi and fantasy epics. Yes, they are also full of action, but they are in a sense the continuation of the chivalric romances that obsessed another famous character, Don Quixote, and that’s the book this novel reminds me of. Of course, we know from the title that Oscar will die, and we can guess he will die for love. Also like Don Quixote, although the story is ultimately tragic, its tone is comic.

What I found most interesting in this novel was the story of Oscar’s family, for this is an inter-generational saga about the fortunes of his family in the Dominican Republic. In a combination of narrative and footnotes, the novel tells the recent history of the Dominican Republic and especially of the Trujillo regime, where Oscar’s family ran aground.

This time period was also the focus of another book I’ve reviewed, In the Time of Butterflies, which this novel references, along with a lot of other pop culture. I complained of that book that it assumed its readers already understood all about the Trujillo dictatorship. The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao does a much better job of explaining Dominican history and exposing us to its culture.

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Day 406: Annals of the Former World: In Suspect Terrain

Cover for Annals of the Former WorldIn the second book of Annals of the Former World, John McPhee returns east to examine the geology of the Appalachians along I-80. Beginning with the Delaware Water Gap, he travels along the highway with geologist Anita Harris exploring the road cuts to see what can be determined about how the landscape developed. The two continue on this route through Pennsylvania and into Ohio, where they explore Kelley’s Island, travel along the Cuyahoga River for a spell, and end at the Indiana Dunes.

Having explained the basics of plate tectonics in Basin and Range, McPhee now travels with a geologist who is skeptical of the broad application the theory has found, particularly in relation to the Appalachians. Harris takes issue with the idea that the mountains were formed by the ramming of the African coast up against North America. She believes that a study of the rocks does not support this concept.

In Suspect Terrain is deeply concerned with glaciation. As well as explaining how glaciers could have formed this area of folded and complex geology, McPhee breaks off to expatiate on how the theory of the Ice Age came about, among other geological ideas. He also tells how Harris herself figured out how to use the color of conodonts, a kind of fossil, to make it easier to find the conditions for oil.

I find it fascinating to try to imagine the pictures of the earth that McPhee describes, how different they are from the continent as it is today. McPhee tells us how rivers ran to the west instead of to the east, huge tropical seas took up the middle of the continent, the glaciers shoved rock down from Canada to create places like Staten Island.

McPhee is an extremely interesting writer. To be sure, the subject matter, the ideas it evokes, and the language he uses demand full attention, but this series of books is involving.